In 2012, Binghamton University decided that it had a deer problem. As is often the case, the first option was the most violent one: shooting the deer. Sufficient public opposition to the killings found the university to New York State Court for noncompliance with the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). The university had not complied with the state guidelines pertaining to the conditions necessary for a deer killing to occur. No study was conducted on the potential environmental impact of shooting up to 90 percent of the deer who lived in or traveled through its preserve. Despite the DEC having issued Binghamton a permit, Justice Molly Fitzgerald ruled that the state guidelines needed to be followed before the kill could take place. As of yet, deer have not been killed at Binghamton.
Shortly before Binghamton, Vassar College also decided that it had a deer problem and that it would conduct a kill in early January 2010 (This article will not explore the science used by Vassar to determine this, though it should be known the existence of deer overpopulation is very much up to debate.) Like Binghamton, there was public outcry over Vassar’s plans to kill, the plans for the shooting were announced shortly before students were scheduled to go on Winter Break—leaving little time for students to voice their dissent—and the College had not obtained a state-conducted study of the potential environmental impact on the Vassar Farm. Unlike Binghamton, litigation was not brought against Vassar in 2009-10 and the first round of killings proceeded.
The first shooting was illegal and carried out by a sharpshooter from White Buffalo, Inc. Only nine of the original deer living in the area were left alive, inciting negative press.
Vassar in 2012 began its process once again, announcing a planned kill shortly before winter break. This time though local residents were prepared and brought litigation against the college in December 2012.
In the first case, the court acknowledged that the first shooting, having taken place within city limits, where use of firearms is prohibited, was an unlawful “mistake” and so required the shooting be limited to the parts of Vassar’s Farm that are in the Town. For reference, The Farm is about evenly divided between the Town of Poughkeepsie and the City of Poughkeepsie.
The court also acknowledged that the killing did require a current state-conducted study of environmental impact on the ecological preserve because of the SEQRA. The studies of the preserve conducted by Vassar could not be substituted for a proper state environmental study. However, the judge decided that the general environmental impact statement on hunting in New York State that was written over three decades prior in 1980 was a sufficiently current and relevant study about what would happen on Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve as a result of the kills. Thus, the 2013 shooting proceeded more lawfully than its 2011 predecessor, with the help of the also-controversial company U.S. Wildlife Services, rather than Wild Buffalo, Inc.
The Save Our Deer Campaign maintains that this 2015 shooting, as well as the two prior, have all been in violation of the Town of Poughkeepsie ordinance against noise, which states that the “use or firing of explosives, firearms or similar devices so as to create unreasonable noise” is forbidden. (Chapter 139 of the Town of Poughkeepsie Codes) Thus, a second case was filed to stop the shooting, the arguments being that the shootings have been a breach of this noise ordinance.
In the 2012 case brought against the City of Poughkeepsie in an attempt to stop the shooting, the judge hearing the case determined that the U.S. Wildlife Services, despite being a federal agency, could not supersede the City of Poughkeepsie ordinance forbidding the use of firearms within city limits. However, the judge of the 2015 case ruled in contradiction to the 2012 judge. The City of Poughkeepsie and Vassar lawyers argued that the U.S. Wildlife Services permit did supersede local laws and suspend the firearms ordinance. The local judge chose to agree with the judgment of Town and City of Poughkeepsie—leaving the decision of whether or not to enforce their ordinances up to them.
On Friday, Jan. 23 and Saturday Jan. 24, Vassar College shot deer for the third time in five years. These unnecessary killings—beyond being an exorbitant waste of college funds with their estimated $150,000-plus price tag and a potential source of contaminated meat donated to local soup kitchens—are a case of Vassar’s exceptionalism within the Poughkeepsie community.
Both the Town and City of Poughkeepsie have catered to Vassar’s supposed needs, at the expense of public health and safety. Hunting is not allowed in the Town or City of Poughkeepsie. The Vassar Farm is never more than a quarter mile from residential roads. With the knowledge that bullets have the capacity to travel well over 2 miles, allowing hunting at the Farm would clearly be incredibly irresponsible and dangerous. Vassar Dean Marianne Begemann has herself stated that hunting at the Farm would be a major risk and that is why the college has not pursued it. Yet, Vassar is able to get around this legal roadblock because the deer killings are not technically “hunting.” In fact, even many hunters consider Vassar’s killing method inhumane and cruel and several have actually joined protests against Vassar’s killings.
Instead of “hunting,” the college employs a “bait and shoot” method outside of the legal New York hunting season so as to target pregnant doe in the kill. College staff are tasked with spreading corn to bait the deer at three sites on the Farm for several weeks. Many staff members oppose the killings, but must participate as not to risk their positions with the college. This baiting practice potentially attracts deer who would not otherwise enter the Farm property, as herds will travel beyond their usual range to find food in the winter. Baiting is designed so as to increase the slaughter count and make it easier to target deer, unlike with a traditional hunt.
The sharp shooters hired for the killings are “professional” killers. As the deer dine, they shoot from cars, using car lights and infrared to immobilize and kill more deer. This is intended to reduce the safety risks of stray bullets or an injured-but-still-alive deer running from the Farm and into the road. Vassar’s professional killers do come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, but are not immune from criticism. This same organization elsewhere makes use of, “neck snares, foothold traps, and toxic devices known as M-44s that spray sodium cyanide into the victim’s mouth, causing tremendous suffering and releasing toxic chemicals into the environment” and has been the subject of several recent lawsuits and investigations. (Center for Biological Diversity, “Lawsuit launched to stop out-of-control wildlife killing by Secretive federal agency in Idaho,”) 09.08.14)
Despite this, the college boasts of these professional killers’ “spotless 10 year record,” making one wonder how much research has actually been done by the Vassar decision-makers regarding who they pay to kill.
Regardless, the shootings consistently spark distress in the nearby neighborhoods. During the killings, there is a spike in calls to both police departments with nearby residents voicing concern over the sound of gunfire in their neighborhood. One mother spoke of her upsetting experience explaining to her frightened young daughter why they were hearing shots from their home. This year, our organization Save Our Deer received information that the local police were not taking complaints about the sound of the gunfire from Vassar’s shootings, thereby tampering with public record on the distress the shootings cause and indicating that the police are not going to enforce their own laws when doing so would interfere with Vassar’s agenda.
City and town ordinances are in place specifically to protect the health and safety of residents. This is why they bar the sound of rifle fire. While the Town of Poughkeespie police will gladly break up a party or concert because of loud noise, rigorously enforcing its noise ordinance, in the case of the terrifying sounds of Vassar’s rifle fire, the town has chosen to ignore the law and police were actually dispatched to help secure the Farm during the shootings.
It should come as no surprise that Vassar College is privileged within and by Poughkeepsie. This is often discussed in terms of the college’s heavy use of ambulances and the fire department despite its tax-exempt status. Here, Vassar’s exceptionalism moves a step further: Vassar has chosen to actively ignore the voices of Poughkeepsie residents who do not want rifles in their neighborhood and has influenced the local police, such that they are not only failing to enforce their own laws but actually dispensing staff to aid in Vassar’s killings. As members of the Vassar community, we must challenge the too-powerful role our school has assumed and find non-violent alternatives to killing.
—Kaden Maguire ’16 and Rocky Schwartz ’15 are Co-Presidents of the Vassar Animal Rights Coalition.